This is a fairly long-winded essay about my recent experience of a travelling sabbatical around the world, complete with musings, childhood experiences, travel photos and some lessons learnt. Enjoy the first part.
Exploring the world from my living room
The first time I ever thought about going overseas was when I was about 9 or 10 years old when something seemingly small changed my perception of life forever.
On a chilly spring weekend a group of about 10-15 adults from all corners of the world appeared in our living room and were having a hilarious conversation in English. As I was sitting around them, trying to make sense of all the accents, words and expressions I couldn’t help but think that there must be life beyond the borders of Hungary. You see these events didn’t happen every day in a sleepy town where I grew up. My father began taking on more and more international work and assignments, which meant that he travelled more often but also more friends and colleagues visited us in Hungary.
That day my eyes opened and after the guests left I rushed to find a world map and travel books (this was well before the Internet reached us) to try and locate all these countries where we had visitors from: USA, South Africa, Finland, England, Japan, on and on I kept the pages turning. Pictures of skyscrapers, mountains, beaches, pagodas and neon-lit streets appeared in the book and my imagination ran wild. What is life like in these places? What do people eat there? How do they have fun? Could I visit there? Better yet, live in one of these countries? That last question was far beyond anything I ever thought was possible.
It would take a few years to visit most of these countries but since that day I had this burning desire to go and see the world (and also my fascination with Asia began to blossom around that time).
The first international trips I took were near the borders of Hungary: Austria, Croatia and Serbia. I visited the last two during the conflict years in the 90s, which were eye opening. Bombed out houses, wounded soldiers, bullet holes in buildings, half-torn flags yet friendly and welcoming people (toward a young teenage boy anyway), beautiful countryside and delicious food. It was confusing but I could see beauty even in the darkest places.
Then when I turned 14 out of the blue I received a return flight ticket to Helsinki, as a primary school graduation gift, to visit our dear family friends. I’ve been to Finland before with my family but let me tell you; flying solo that young was awesome. Looking out through the airplane window I was mesmerised as the ground grew distant and I began my two-hour journey to the Finnish capital. Sitting alone on the flight at 30,000 feet I felt myself ready and excited for the journey alone.
Then it hit me. I’m doing exactly what I dreamed about all those years ago pouring over the books and maps.
Looking but not seeing
The best way to travel and see the world is…well actually to go and see the world. I never looked at travel as #escapism or #wanderlust rather what new experience or activity I might see or do, who I might meet or what I might learn about a new topic or myself. Actually, that last one is what drove me to travel. There is a whole big world out there with billions of people, adventures and experiences and my view has always been that seeing it first hand is the best way to learn.
You see, most people travel as an observer (think of tour groups and tour leaders with their colourful umbrellas and loudspeakers). They might “see” and do a lot but experience very little. But by being an active participant, someone who lives and breathes the experience in the moment, the traveller gives himself the permission to begin to think and see the world differently.
I am biased. You are biased. We are all biased. If you say you are not you lie about other stuff too. Our past experiences, society, parents, schools, media etc helped us to become biased and most often we don’t ever question our assumptions. We all judge and decide based on a small selection of past experiences and tend to generalise how the future will be. If the familiar past is all that we let ourselves experience then that’s our whole, although rather limited, concept of the world. Travelling, new experiences for that matter, can broaden our minds. Find the universals and similarities as we travel. Nothing makes the world smaller than seeing just how similar we all are.
Finding the travel companion of a lifetime
There is another reason why travelling is great. It lends us the possibility to see someone in ways we otherwise might not have the chance to do so. Let me explain.
During my penultimate year at university (which was in Bath, England) we were offered the chance to spend our second to last semester abroad. I thought, wow, it’s like living abroad on top of going abroad: abroad²(™). I immediately set my sights on two Asian universities, one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore, and began writing my applications. A few months passed by and Christmas was fast approaching when I got an official looking e-mail: “Prepare your bags, you’ve been accepted at City University of Hong Kong as an exchange student”. After running up and down the campus in excitement and calling my family and friends I sat down quietly and remembered that young boy who was dreaming about living or at least visiting Asia. Once again, life has really outdone herself.
Landing in Hong Kong airport on a hot and humid August day the following year was a reminder that, “Well, Toto, we sure ain’t in Kansas anymore”. First of all the humidity was so bad that for minutes I could barely breathe, much to the amusement of my local friends. Second, the huge skyscrapers and neon-lit buildings were not unlike the ones I’ve seen in those travel books years before. I was once again reminded that I was living my dream. I was far from home yet in a peculiar way I felt at home amidst the craziness of this urban jungle. I fell in love with the city.
Love was on the cards for the second time during my stay in Hong Kong, but not how I could have ever imagined it. On the third to last day of my stay I was introduced to a beautiful girl from the city and we struck up a conversation that went until the break of dawn the following day. The first thing that struck me about her was her height. I’m 6”4’ and when I look around I normally see far into the distance. Here, I saw her eyes. In fact, I got lost in her eyes for hours. In a few days we said our good-byes and I headed for the airport to fly back home. However, little did we know that within just 8 years we’d be married to each other and commit to building a life together in love and partnership in the same exact city where we first met. For the nth time, life has truly outdone herself.
So how does it all relate to travelling? To state the obvious I would have never met Joyce, my wife, had I not embraced the uncertainty of a new continent, country and culture. Furthermore, more recently, we have been on an around the world trip, a sabbatical of sorts, together.
Before our marriage began we lived in a long distance relationship, with her in HK and myself in London. The distance is great for collecting air miles, not so much for building a relationship. Then after our wedding she moved to London but we always had this thought in the back of our heads that we never really lived together. Wouldn’t it make sense that before starting a family of our own, we really got to know each other on an even deeper level? We both agreed. How would such an experiment look like? Should we move to a new place? Take a long honeymoon? Volunteer somewhere for a few weeks? How about…travelling around the world? Hmmm. This idea seemed a little scary at first but we both felt a call to embrace the unknown. It also came at an opportune time as I felt my career stalling – a change in scenery would do both of us good in many aspects. Oh, and Joyce also reminded me that we did have two weddings but 0 honeymoons so far. She had a point…
So what do we do now? It is a big world out there if we criss-cross continents we’ll spend a lot of time in transit. How about just one continent?
That was it. We both smiled and agreed. After all of those years pouring over travel books I thought I’d finally have the chance to explore in-depth this part of the world. Better yet we’d be together far outside of our comfort zones, really getting to know the other person, and laying a solid foundation for the future of our relationship. An investment of time and energy into something we both deemed very important.
We sold and gave away all of our belongings, donated hundreds of books, gave up our flat, I resigned from my job in London and bought two tickets towards East. Actually, this process was very liberating; our mini Marie Kondo experiment. We never had too much stuff but the clearing out of a pile of things meant the closing of one chapter and turning the page to a new one. So with two suitcases and two backpacks we set off to explore the world. What we didn’t realise at the time is that just how much this would change our lives.
The seasons of life
I used to think that the word sabbatical meant taking a break from life and career, however after completing one I now know that it is really a part of it. For me it was the letting go of the past and making way for something new to emerge.
Sabbatical has its roots in the word sabbath and originates from an ancient agricultural practice of leaving the land idle, stopping all agricultural activity to reduce soil erosion and increase fertility and future crop yields. Original texts suggest this sabbatical happened on every 7th year (i.e. 6 years of work and 1 year of rest), with other interpretations suggesting otherwise, although perhaps the specifics matter less than the concept itself. We don’t need to think in years to see this work/rest concept appear in nature and our lives: daily wake/rest cycles, weekdays/weekends (though for me most weekends were still about work), seasons in any given year and so on.
The changes in seasons mark the change in weather patterns and soil conditions, such as the end of winter giving way to spring so that new life can form on the land. Just as nature we all have seasons in our lives. Knowing which season we are in and how to take advantage of it are two of the most important things we can do for our sanity. Nature has a flow and acting against it can (and will) create a lot of frustration and pain. Try harvesting in spring, before the fruits are fully ripen, or planting in winter, when the soil is frozen.
Much like knowing which season we are in it is equally important to know that, just as everything in life, it is transient. The heat of summer will fade into the chilly-ness of autumn then to the cool of winter and en-route to summer’s warmth again it’ll make a pit stop in the bloom of spring. Over time this constant flow and cycle creates balance. Remaining in one season for an extended period puts enormous pressure on the land, prohibiting proper recovery therefore normal yields in the future. Over-planting will result in sub-optimal harvest and over-harvesting will erode the topsoil over time.
Nature strives towards balance, finding the Tao, the middle way. Similarly to our lives and careers, we go through cycles: spring (ideas and planning), summer (action and execution), autumn (harvest and reaping the benefits) and winter (rest and recuperation). Just work will burn us out (many are finding this out the hard way) but keeping idle for too long without creating will result in lack of purpose, boredom and entropy. The aim is to find the golden middle.
Seasons change automatically, that’s guaranteed, but what is not is growth and progress through these changes. That’s up to us.
Click here for part 2.